The Tsar of California

Jeremy Atiyah, the first Travel Editor of the 'IoS', died in 2006 at the age of 43. At the time, he was writing a book about a little-known moment in history when the Russians had designs on the west coast of North America. Over the past two years, his father, Patrick, has completed the project and this fascinating tale is now told in a new book, 'The Great Land', published this Friday
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The Independent Travel

Early in 1806, Alexander Baranov, Governor of New Archangel (now known as Sitka) and virtually of Russian Alaska, and Nicolai Rezanov, the Emissary of the Tsar in St Petersburg, made plans for the extension of Russian rule down the south coast of western America, to California and beyond.

By a strange irony, the foundation of Russia's furthest flung colony would occur at precisely the moment of the nation's greatest peril at home. In the same week that Napoleon was entering the now-abandoned city of Moscow, Ivan Kuskov, assistant of Alexander Baranov, chief manager of the Russian American Company, would raise the Russian flag over his Californian fort.

In English it was called Fort Ross. But for the Russians themselves it would simply be Ross, or Rus. Fort Ross would be seen as a place of small beginnings, but a great destiny. Such were the hopes that Baranov could invest in a projected settlement on the coast of northern California. All the while these lands had remained unoccupied, his own aspirations for territorial expansion in America had remained intact. There were good reasons for this. If a Russian settlement could be placed as far south as San Francisco, there was a strong likelihood that all the intervening land south of Sitka would become Russian by default. Just as citizens of the United States were pushing their border ever further west, so Baranov could feel that he was pushing his border ever further south. The question was: who could push faster?

So he had called for his dependable assistant once more, the man who had chosen the likely site for a Californian settlement two years earlier. Kuskov must have been delighted at his commission. By the harsh standards of the Alaskan coast, let alone of Russia itself, California would have seemed like an amazingly comfortable place for him to build a settlement. Below the 40th parallel, he would face none of the difficulties that the Americans were enduring in their attempt to build a settlement at Astoria on the Columbia River, or indeed that Baranov himself had already endured in Alaska. California was not that kind of place. The climate was warm and food abundant. Winter, in the Russian sense, never visited this part of the world.

Even the local people, comprising perhaps 1,500 along a 50-mile strip of coast, were amenable, far more so than the fierce tribes around Sitka in Alaska or the Columbia River. In peace and quiet, without fear of attack, the first settlers – 95 Russians and about 80 Aleut hunters – soon set to work chopping wood and erecting a stockade. Before long, bastions were beginning to arise from the virgin soil, along with a chapel, the commandant's house, soldiers' and officers' barracks, a kitchen, warehouses and a jail. The structure of the main fort would be completed by 1814. At least one report from the directors of the Russian-American Company at this time suggests that Fort Ross was being seen as a possible future headquarters of Russian America.

But there was still a problem with the sea otters: the Spanish were astonished and furious to find Aleut hunters, under the supervision of Russians, invading San Francisco Bay. When Kuskov arrived, apparently planning to settle permanently in the area, this problem threatened to spill out of hand. The number of Aleut canoes in San Francisco Bay on any one day was sometimes well in excess of a hundred. The Spanish could not prevent Kuskov from obtaining huge numbers of skins during his first years at Ross. In March 1814, one of Astor's vessels purchased no fewer than 3,400 immensely valuable otter skins from him. The Spanish themselves could only dream of getting involved in such fabulous trade deals. They had no ships to speak of. Much of the Spanish fleet lay at the bottom of the Atlantic, sunk by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. And they themselves, impoverished and impotent in threadbare uniforms, could do little more than scuttle about their own shores in the wake of their invaders.

Offshore, the Russians found that they could move virtually unchallenged. In the same year that he founded Ross, Kuskov also decided to take over the Fallarone Islands, a few miles out to sea from San Francisco, and make them a permanent base for his hunters. For years to come Baranov's seamen would hold these islands as the remotest outpost of Russia's Pacific empire.

It was a humiliating situation for the Spanish. Their claims to sovereignty over California were being rudely ignored. Perhaps in recognition of their own pitiful weakness, they did not at first raise any formal complaint that the Russians were building at Fort Ross. Instead, Don Luis Arguello, the commandant of San Francisco, sent an envoy, one Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga, to chat with the Russians. Moraga's visit seems to have been entirely amiable. Kuskov showed him round the fort with apparent pride. The visiting Spaniard had no authority himself to grant Kuskov's wish and initiate trade relations, but he did tell the Russians, before leaving, that he would try to help them.

Nothing formal had been agreed, but early in 1813 Kuskov seems to have received verbal permission from Jose Arillaga, the ageing Spanish governor of California, to engage in some informal trade. For a while relations would proceed on this basis. But as awareness of their own weakness sank in, waves of insecurity began afflicting the Spanish in San Francisco. Their mood swung back and forth between acquiescence and outrage at the Russian invasion. When the Viceroy in Mexico heard that Baranov had had the effrontery to build a fort in northern California, he sent an immediate protest, which Lieutenant Moraga conveyed in person to Fort Ross in 1814.

Kuskov told Moraga innocently that he had no authority to remove the fort, but that he would inform Baranov of the Spanish position and await orders. Such polite prevarication would serve him well on this, as on several future occasions. There was little, in the meantime, the Spanish could do. In 1816, the Spanish governor of California admitted to the Viceroy that it would be "difficult" to expel intruders; in 1818 he was, in fact, ordered to expel them, but refused on the grounds of inadequate soldiery. In short, Alexander Baranov had every right to feel proud of what Kuskov had achieved.

Ross was at the forefront of Russia's expansion into the new world. Before long its stockade would contain the house of the manager, the quarters of other officials, barracks for Russian employees, and various storehouses. Some of the buildings would have two storeys; the manager's house would have glass in the windows and be comfortably furnished. Outside the stockade, factories such as windmills, bakehouses, tanneries and brickworks continued to rise.

Relations between the Russ-ians and the native Californians were also relatively good. The treaty that the Russian-American Company and the Cali-fornian natives eventually signed in 1817 would be the first between Europeans and natives anywhere on this coast. In the meantime, they traded happily between one another, the natives supplying grain and other foods, in exchange for Russian manufactured products. Fruit trees too were destined to prosper here, and herds of livestock also began to flourish, most of which had been procured initially from the Spanish. Eventually, three quite large ranches, with dwellings, storehouses, baths and corrals, would be farmed, in and around the region of Fort Ross, Bodega Bay and Russian River. Slowly, Californian potatoes, wheat, fruits, tobacco and butter began to find their way up to Sitka and Kodiak.

Back in his grand house at New Archangel, Baranov was playing host to Astor's agent William Hunt. The New Yorker had arrived offering terms. The two men began discussing a deal by which the Americans might solve the Russian food shortages, and put an end to the problem of arms being sold to the natives. The talk would have touched on the cordial relations between their respective governments. Hunt seems to have found Baranov in vintage form at this time. He referred to the Russian's habit of constantly "giving entertainments". He also complained that "if you do not drink raw rum and boiling punch as strong as sulphur, he [Baranov] will insult you as soon as he gets drunk, which is very shortly after sitting down to table". But no matter how much Baranov personally drank, "the old grizzled bear" seemed to Hunt to be "as keen, not to say as crafty, at a bargain, as the most arrant water drinker".

By comparison to the disastrous founding of Astoria by the Americans, the omens at Fort Ross, in short, seemed to be excellent. A century later, in the mid-1920s, a traveller in this part of northern California would note that the apple trees planted by the Russians at Fort Ross had "brought a crop regularly every year for 113 years". In the view of the writer, the fact that these trees had escaped all the blights of California owed itself to the good fortune that "a Russian Priest sprinkled them with holy water when he planted them".

With the foundation of Fort Ross, the tide was turning once again in favour of Russia. Alexander Baranov could congratulate himself that his American colonies had become self-sustaining at last. In some moods he might have been tempted to think of himself as the Tsar of California.

'The Great Land: How Western America Nearly Became a Russian Possession' by Jeremy Atiyah is published on 14 March by Parker Press, an imprint of Hart Publishing, price £19.95.

To order this book at the discounted price of £18.50 (and free p&p on UK orders), please call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit